Tag Archives: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy Gentleman

Session #2: Author and narrator

Into the Woods Narrator
Image by P Wood via Flickr

Session #2, February 4th, 2009.

The texts used today were:

  1. The first paragraph of Adam Bede (1859)  by George Eliot
  2. an excerpt from “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent” (1759-67) by Laurence Sterne,
  3. an excerpt from How Far Can You Go?? (1980) by David Lodge, and
  4. an excerpt from Nice Work (1988), also by David Lodge.

In “Adam Bede”, George Eliot uses an intrusive narrator’s voice:

With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertook to reveal to any chance comer far‐reaching visions of the past.  This is what I undertake to do for you,  reader. With this drop of ink at the end of my pen, I will show you the roomy workshop of Jonathan Burge, carpenter and builder in the village of Hayslope, as it appeared on the 18th of June, in the year of our Lord, 1799.

In “Tristram Shandy”, Laurence Sterne actually berates an imaginary reader with whom he has a conversation: he orders the inattentive reader to go back and read the last few pages again.  While she is “gone”, he then talks directly to the “remaining” reader, with his tongue firmly in his cheek: “I have imposed this penance upon the lady, neither out of wantonness or cruelty, but from the best of motives… ‘Tis to rebuke a vicious taste which has crept into thousands besides herself, – of reading straight forwards, more in quest of the adventures, than of the deep erudition and knowledge which a book of this cast, if read over as it should be, would infalliby impart with them.”

In the David Lodge extracts, we again have a narrator who  talks directly to the reader: “a girl you have not yet been introduced to…” and “I like the connotations of Violet – shrinking, penitential, melancholy…” The second extract provides a similar example: “And there, for the time being, let us leave Vic Wilcox, while we travel back an hour or two in time, a few miles in space, to meet a very different character.”

All of these examples also illustrate another technique of fiction called “breaking frame”. This expression originates from a sociologist called Erving Goffman (Japanese here) who created a concept called frame analysis or framing. A “frame” means a set of rules, expectations or stereotypes about a particular situation.

In the movies, one of the rules is that the actors should never look at the camera: this maintains the fiction that there is no camera, that we are watching something actually happening. This fiction is a pretence that everyone agrees to, a rule that everyone agrees to play by.  If a character looks straight at the camera, it reminds the viewers that the whole thing is a fiction, that everybody in front of the camera is playing FOR the camera. This is called “breaking frame”.

In literature, one of the “rules” is that the narrator refers only to the story being told, and not to the relationship between the narrator and the reader, for example, by addressing the reader directly. If the narrator addresses the reader directly, as Laurence Sterne does, it “breaks” the “frame”: it reminds us that there is no “action”, there are no real characters; everything is invented out of the author’s imagination, including the narrator!

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